Same Rules, Different Game
There is a new type of researcher emerging–one that is turning away the misconception that good research is inaccessible and closing the gap between human interaction and design. As Prolific Interactive’s first dedicated UX designer/researcher, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about what I do. Not just from my friends and family, but also from my colleagues and from those within the industry. Many of us are still trying to sort through the trending industry buzzwords and inconsistent terminology in order to understand the core purpose and value of having a dedicated researcher on a product team. The answer, although maybe unsatisfying, is that UX Research doesn’t mean any one specific thing, and those that practice it are having to constantly adapt and experiment to keep up with technology’s evolving impact on humans.
Even though the methods are changing, the rules of research are the same. For a UX researcher, their lab is the internet, their experiments are designed with rapid prototyping tools, and their microscope is the latest usability testing software. Their field might be the local coffee shop and their test subjects look just like you and me-—in my case, if you own a smartphone, they are you and me. The only difference is that, like technology, we have to move fast to stay ahead. Contextual inquiry, ethnography, usability testing, heuristic evaluation, task analysis, personas: these terms have new meaning in the digital space and are assigned to processes used to reach the same goals product designers have been working toward for a long time–to make a useful product that also brings delight to its users.
Research Shouldn’t End With A Report
When I started pivoting my career focus to User Experience Design, I was so excited by the way my interest in studying social phenomena and its relationship to technology plays off of my obsession for good design. I had studied sociology and had been practicing design for many years. It seemed like such a natural combination. Yet, while speaking with digital agency after digital agency, I saw a disheartening pattern emerge. “Design Research? We’d love to do more of that, but we just never have time. We’re mostly looking for someone to just do the wireframes,” they’d say. Or worse—- “That’s great, but we’re pretty much experts in this now, and it’s more of a pattern recognition thing at this point. We don’t really need much ‘research.’”
The bigger design firms have research teams, or employ outside research agencies to create expansive and in-depth reports at the beginning of their projects, or maybe usability testing reports at the end, but they lack the insight and impact that comes with getting your hands dirty alongside the designers and engineers in the midst of the product’s creation. Unlike other kinds of research, UX research doesn’t end in a report or publication. UX research might not really end at all. It travels through the product life-cycle into interface design, testing, iteration, and is repeated cyclically. There are always new things to learn and ways to make improvements.
Raising the bar on product design
When I started at Prolific Interactive, I was the first of my kind-—a sort of experiment to fill a void that Prolific recognized was crucial for the next step in their development as a top mobile agency, which is a recognition that is very rare among young agencies. They wanted to see how a UX designer dedicated for research could improve the life-cycle of digital products to align users with the design process and test our ideas early to steer the product teams in the right direction.
The designers I’ve been working with have been receptive to our experiment, and the product managers have embraced and trusted the insights that have come from my work. What I’ve found here is that everyone I work with is not only smart and accomplished in their domain, but they’re also excited to experiment with me, to try new things and adapt to changing methods of discovery. We’re all working towards the same goal–to make useful products that also bring unexpected delight to those that use them.